A staple in the Seattle music scene, multi-instrumentalist Tomo Nakayama, emerges with a solo album after several successful years leading chamber pop band, Grand Hallway. I interviewed Tomo for a music writing class and decided to share it with the release of his first solo album, Fog On The Lens, out today! Buy it here or see him live at one (or more) of his 14 shows in one day.
How did your approach to the upcoming album, Fog On The Lens, differ from previous Grand Hallway recordings?
I played all the instruments myself and my friend, Yuuki Matthews of the Shins, added some keyboards and synthesizers and the mixing process so it’s mostly just me working by myself and engineering everything. I recorded it during my residency at Town Hall this Spring. I used the building as a recording studio and a lot of ways it’s like approaching it like a bedroom record.
Like a really big bedroom?
[Laughs] Yeah, like a really big bedroom. So it’s got that kind of intimacy and immediacy that I think you can get from a home demo with a bigger sound. It’s cool. I got to work a lot faster than collaborating with six other people, which is really fun but wanted to try something a little more raw and not as thought-out, I guess.
Is that why you went from releasing it under Grand Hallway and under your own name?
I already made the decision at that point that I wanted to do things on my own. We’ve been doing Grand Hallway for six years and I loved everybody. I’m still friends with everyone in the band. A couple of us had kids and I got married and we all just started living separate lives outside of the band. Also being in a band is fun but is like a small business. You have to operate like a business and it’s like being in a marriage with a lot of personal work and a lot of energy that isn’t necessarily spent on creative pursuits but more on maintaining your place in the scene and getting your name out there, marketing your work. That part wasn’t as fun to me.
Did you work with Yuuki Matthews prior to this new solo album?
No, I’ve always been a huge fan of his music. We actually went to the same middle school and high school but he was always a year ahead of me so we weren’t really friends. I kinda followed his career around and went to his shows and always thought he was like the cool kid. We talked for a long time about doing something together. Recently he thought about going into producing and mixing other people’s music so he reached out to me when he found out that I was doing this album on my own and offered help mixing the tracks. It was perfect timing and happened really organically and I think b/c we grew up listening to so much of the same music and had a lot of similar experiences, we’re both half Japanese and have the cultural reference points. It was like the easiest mixing process I’ve ever gone through.
What made you decide to do 14 shows in one day?
It’s 8am to 11pm. The first show is an in-studio at KEXP. It just started b/c I was really tired of the marketing and logistical aspects of being in a band and how to sell yourself, you know? The thought of putting on a show and worrying about selling tickets and putting a band together didn’t really appeal to me. I was thinking about the best musical experiences I’ve had the last couple years and they were all really small at places like cafes and house shows where either I knew everybody or I did a small show on the East Coast last fall and I was just playing these tiny shows in spaces like this and didn’t know the people in the audience but I could see their faces and them listening. There was back and forth between songs and people felt free to talk and want to create that intimacy at my shows so instead of putting on big show, maybe I’ll do a couple small ones.
So I booked an in-store at Sonic Boom and then Zach at Porchlight mentioned a party at Hilliard’s and they were really into it so that sounds fun. And b/c Porchlight is also a coffeehouse maybe we should do one in the morning. We had all these hours in between so then it became, what if we play four shows? Everyone I kept telling would have another place to suggest and then the more I started thinking about it, it made sense. I want to celebrate local businesses and people that are actually going to stores interacting with people who run the businesses. Human connections get lost when you’re just posting a link to bandcamp. I started thinking about music and the value and the role that it plays in people’s lives.
Are you playing the same set at each location?
No. It’s gonna be mixed up. The way I usually approach shows is that I never write a set list down. I play whatever comes to mind. If I see someone in the audience that reminds me of a song or if I hear a conversation that’s related to something I’m about to play, I’ll just switch it around.
Yuuki is cool with that too?
Yeah, that’s what’s cool about him. He’s just really go with the flow and into it and that’s hard to find. Some people like to be really structured and work really hard on their craft, which is a total valid way of doing things too but I’m just kinda manic [Laughs]. I think it will be fun. I’m trying to re-learn some older songs and covers and maybe throw that in there just to amuse ourselves.
When you were at the artist residency, you were there for 3 months. How was that experience?
Yes, but I wasn’t living there. They gave me the keys to the building and had events there almost every night but during the day and after the events I could use it. Often times, I treated it like a 9-to-5 job. I’d wake up in the morning and go there, hang out. I didn’t do too much writing during that time. I played a little piano, read some books, walked around the neighborhood a bunch, went to the library a lot, museums too. At night I would show up. I’m kind of a night owl. I was struggling with that. When I got married a couple years ago. My wife has two kids so there’s other people in the house so I can’t always wake up at 2 in the morning so it was kinda like relearning the creative process and this was a nice way to get back into it. If I felt creative in the middle of the night, I had a place to go.
How do you feel Seattle has influenced your music?
I was born in Japan and moved here when I was 8. I grew up in Bellevue. For a while there wasn’t any all ages music in Seattle. So a lot of the really cool all ages stuff was happening on the east side, the Redmond Firehouse and Ground Zero, late 90’s early 2000s. There was a lot of really creative outside the box musicians coming out where I grew up so that was really influential. The geography of the place, just being surrounded by water and trees. Everytime I go on tour, I come back and appreciate the Northwest a little bit more. It really is a beautiful place. I like the bay area but it’s different. We have seasons here and it comes out in the lyrics. I’ve heard people say that my music reminds them of Seattle. I talked to someone at a show in New York who had never heard my music before and she said she just moved there from Everett and my songs made her homesick for Everett. I don’t sing specifically about Seattle but something about it is interesting. I can sorta see that. It’s like a mellowness or just an openness to Seattle. The pace of life is a little different. But it’s also peaceful. And people are a lot more willing to collaborate on stuff. There’s a really nice community of musicians here that play on each other’s records. It’s the same that I’ve found with the film world. Even photography is like that too. It feels that way because everyone knows everyone’s work.
You have a new album coming out November 4th, but do you have plans for after that? Any more acting?
That was like a really weird. That was fun. Lynn basically wrote that part for me so I can’t see that particular set of circumstances happening again any time soon. But I’m working on scoring a film for a director out in Georgia and that’s supposed to shoot this Fall so I’ll be writing music for it next year. I’d like to do acting, I enjoyed it but I didn’t enjoy the other stuff that comes with it. I went to Sundance and got to do the whole press junket business with the rest of the cast [for Touchy Feely] which I wasn’t prepared for because I just went down there to watch the movie. They said “well you’re here, let’s go talk to Entertainment Weekly.” [Laughs] That’s a whole different world.